How to Develop a Continuous Learning Agenda

Nicholas J Price
5 min read

In most boardrooms, board directors bring diverse backgrounds, education, experience and various skills with them. Collectively, the board needs common knowledge, understanding and a common language. Most boards also have at least some degree of governance gaps. Despite any apparent weaknesses, corporate boards also have the ability to learn, and that is a coveted asset within any organization.

If you think about it, corporate leaders are essentially teachers. Part of their role is to have a vision and to be able to communicate that vision to others. Communicating a vision successfully requires opening the eyes and minds of others to help them see beyond 'what is' to 'what could be.' Successful corporate leaders are able to point their peers and subordinates to new goals by helping them see different things and to see things differently. We can define a learning culture as a learning climate that encourages open minds and promotes an independent search for new and useful information. As it pertains to corporate learning, to develop a continuous learning agenda continually points toward the company's mission and goals.

The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) states that only 10% of companies make use of true learning cultures. This low percentage speaks to the challenges for boards in the lack of time and knowledge. Opportunities for training, development and continuous learning often get pushed to the sidelines in favor of impending deadlines and short-term projects. To develop a continuous learning agenda, boards must first establish a learning agenda and then build on it and make it a priority.

Benefits from a Learning Agenda

Another challenge that prevents some companies from the need to develop a continuous learning agenda is establishing which individual, group or department will take responsibility for it. Many board directors and management teams automatically consider learning and development as an HR responsibility. It's possible that they're right if there is recognizable agreement that this responsibility falls under their duties. Often, there is a lack of an official designation of this duty, so it never gets addressed. In fact, a 2018 Harvard Business Review article reports that in their survey of HR leaders, HR executives held the expectation that managers should be spending around 36% of their time developing talent in employees. Conversely, a study showed that a survey of managers indicated that managers spent only 9% of their time developing talent in their subordinates in actuality.

There are enough benefits of a continuous learning environment to make implementing a learning culture beyond worthwhile. A Deloitte report reveals some of the notable benefits of creating continuous learning cultures. The report stated that 46% of companies that have a continuous learning culture were more likely to be the first in their industry to market. Companies that embrace continual learning enjoy 37% higher productivity. Companies that encourage learning and development are 92% more apt to be innovative.

A culture is not just a thought or a process. It's a mindset, or way of thinking, that infiltrates other activities and tasks. A continuous learning culture doesn't develop on its own. It requires having the proper tone at the top. Corporate leaders who value learning, adapting, changing and innovation helped to establish a growth mindset in others. A continuous learning culture requires a clearer understanding of the organization's operating environment. It's something that helps to connect employees with managers and the board because it helps to give meaning to the efforts that the board and management are making to help the organization progress.

A continuous learning agenda also conveys the importance of continual learning to internal and external stakeholders. Over time, the learning culture helps to get everyone on the same page and in alignment with the company's values.

How to Develop a Continuous Learning Agenda

To incite interest and gain momentum, it may take a little planning. That can mean anything from setting up an informal brainstorming session to launching a formal internal campaign. Annual retreats often provide a welcoming environment to test the waters on new ideas such as creating a continuous learning agenda.

One of the first initiatives is to identify the areas in which board directors or other employees need to become more knowledgeable. There are an infinite number of topics to explore, including Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) or other regulations, risk assessment, risk management, cybersecurity or understanding financial reports.

The next step is to develop a plan for how to cover the topics. One way is to assign each board member a topic to learn more about and assign them some time at an upcoming board meeting to share it.

They will learn more about it when they have to do the research to be able to teach it to others. By offering a learning opportunity to others, it also increases the teaching board member's leadership ability. A successful presentation may motivate them to contribute more emphatically when the board is discussing other topics, and it draws out opinions from quieter board members. The presenting board member also then becomes the peer expert on a particular topic. Another important concept is that by pursuing greater knowledge, presenting board directors will be better positioned to apply their newfound knowledge to other contexts.

As presenters prepare to enlighten others with their findings, a continuous learning culture means that they should focus on information that is likely to be new for the board. In essence, be sure to build on existing information and not just regurgitate it. To make it dynamic and reflective, explain how this new information pertains to your board. Finally, ask the presenter to do a brief write-up of their findings and give everyone an opportunity to provide valuable feedback.

Be sure to document such reports into the meeting minutes because they will serve as a reference point for current and future board directors. Collectively, such reports provide the history and rationale for board thinking. These reports also make a great enhancement for orientation and can help to get new board directors up to speed on the organization's history.

Board Development Lends Itself Naturally to Peer-to-Peer Coaching

The structure of corporate boards lends itself quite naturally to the benefits of peer-to-peer coaching. Cultural change typically begins at the top. By offering your board directors regular opportunities for knowledge and personal and professional growth, you will soon be able to observe the impact of your efforts as board directors begin to drive their own independent initiatives for continuous learning.